Visual Arts in Dermatology: Training the Eye


A novel yearly course introducing observational skills to dermatology residents, using Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS)


  • To focus on the nuances of observation with no background knowledge required (texture, color, shape, shadow).
  • To allow each resident to recognize her own observational strategy and blind spots.
  • To build a team spirit for residents in a safe space.
  • To develop residents as teachers, communicators and leaders.
  • To have residents acknowledge their responses to ambiguity.
  • To provoke residents to acknowledge their own assumptions.


In partnership with museum educators from the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, Harvard Medical School dermatologists Dr. Huang and Dr. Buzney founded this yearly course to teach observational skills to dermatology residents through fine arts, with secondary emphases on active listening, communication and teaching skills, and appreciation of perspective and one’s own response to ambiguity. The course has been implemented since 2014, in 3 several-hour sessions over the course of the year.


Before class.

  • The museum educators meet with Dr. Buzney and Dr. Huang to prepare for the sessions and create a class curriculum. Often this includes looking at works of art at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston to pick works suitable for VTS, many of which rotate, such as the Clock, a recent video installation.
  • The curriculum is then tailored for each class. For instance, the residents use Model Magic clay for an exercise on ambiguity. Or, residents practice descriptive skills by asking another resident to copy a work of art based solely on their description.

In class.

  • The class typically starts with reflections from the previous session and with clear goals for the session.
  • Next, the students break into smaller groups to go into the Museum.
  • A detailed description of VTS is as follows:
    • Residents first engage in "slow looking" where they have time to move around the work of art and form initial impressions.
    • Then, the leader engages the group in VTS using only three questions:
      • What can we find in this work?
      • What do you see that makes you say that?
      • What more can we find?
    • The leader also uses facilitation skills to acknowledge the contributions of each group member and make connections.
  • The group typically comes to a group interpretation or several interpretations of the work, based on their specific observations. The VTS discussion concludes with a discussion of the process that the group has gone through together.


  • The students re-convene and the facilitator holds a discussion prompting students to discuss their experience.


  • VTS is a validated method of using fine arts to enhance observational skills. The instructors tested the results in their groups and found evidence of enhanced observational skills which they published in a foremost journal of dermatology, the British Journal of Dermatology, in July, 2016.
  • The instructors also published a manuscript describing visual literacy and dermatology training in the Journal of Museum Education in 2016, and the course was featured in a Huffington Post article in February, 2016. (


For this activity to work, the instructors recommend:

  • 1) Certification in VTS.
  • 2) Partnering with museum educators.
  • 3) Getting buy-in from residents and program director.


Submitted by Elizabeth Buzney and Jennifer Huang, Department of Dermatology

visual_art_and_dermatology_lesson_goals.pdf423 KB
resident_as_teacher_feedback_cases.docx21 KB
mfa_dermatology_course_description.docx22 KB